Theresa May has survived a no-confidence vote called by the Labour opposition following the huge defeat in the House of Commons over the EU exit agreement. The overwhelming majority voted against May’s plan, which she negotiated with the EU to ensure a smooth exit for Britain. A total of 432 deputies voted against the agreement, compared with 202 in favour. Shockingly, more Conservative deputies were against the prime minister's plan than expected, with 118 deputies joining the opposition to reject the deal in the worst parliamentary defeat since the financial crisis of 1929. The Labour opposition leader, Jeremy Corbyn, immediately took advantage of the opportunity to table a vote of no confidence in the government in an attempt to bring about early elections. May survived the no-confidence vote because conservatives put aside their position on the deal to support the government, in a repeat of the previous no-confidence vote tabled from within her own party in December. Yet the UK’s political future and economic position have become the subject of great debate. The question of how Britain can pull itself out of the biggest crisis it has suffered in decades, a crisis of its own making, remains elusive.
The Road to Chaos
After many years of resisting popular and political pressure to hold a referendum on Britain’s membership to the EU, the former British Prime Minister, David Cameron, bowed to demands and called for the 23 June 2016 vote. He had been confident in his assumption that the majority would vote to remain, but the result came as a shock, with 52% of the nation voting to leave. The leave campaign was described as one based on ignorance and populism that had failed to explain the procedures and consequences of Brexit. Cameron handed in his resignation following the decision, to be succeeded by his then interior minister, Theresa May, who worked to negotiate the exit conditions with the EU. Although May initially stood to remain, she committed herself fully as Prime Minister to carry out the will of the electorate with minimal damage. The negotiation process, which lasted about two years, began by invoking Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which outlines the procedure if a member state decides to leave. EU leaders signed the treaty in October 2007 in Lisbon, Portugal, and it came into effect on 1 December 2009.
Article 50 stipulates that any member state that wants to leave the EU must negotiate to reach an exit agreement over a period no longer than two years, starting from the official notice is given that the said party unless all other Member States agree to extend it upon request. The article also stipulates that any exit agreement requires "qualified majority" (72% of the 27 remaining EU member states or 65 per cent of the EU population), as well as the support of the European Parliament. The fifth paragraph of the article includes the possibility of the leaving state repealing its decision to leave the European Union without the need for the approval of the Member States. Theresa May invoked Article 50 as of the end of March 2017, meaning that the deadline for reaching an agreement expires at the end of March 2019, which will be impossible to meet after parliament’s rejection of the exit plan.
Why Did Parliament Reject the Plan?
The British House of Commons hosts 650 seats, 315 of which are currently occupied by the ruling Conservatives, who enjoy less than a ten-seat majority. The party lost its parliamentary majority in the 2017 elections, which forced it to make an ally of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the Northern Irish loyalists to the British Crown who hold 10 seats in Parliament. Despite having a simple majority (325 seats) in parliament, May lost the vote 432 to 202. The DUP refused to support the deal and even within the Conservative Party itself, no consensus could be reached. Additionally, some of May’s opponents in the party tried to use the issue to undermine her authority and take the opportunity to replace her leadership in the government. Support for May’s plan was limited to the mainstream bloc within the Conservative Party, which usually follows the party whip without question, most of them being government officials, and some members of the Scottish Conservative Party.
The reason for Parliament’s rejection of the deal differ according to the various political forces and their particular standpoints on Brexit. The hard-liner Brexiteers in the Conservative party, around 90 MPs (who go by the title “the European Research Group” led by Jacob Rees-Mogg and include former foreign minister Boris Johnson and former Brexit Secretary David Davis). They object to the exit plan because it detracts from their view of the sovereignty of Britain. The deal would see the UK remain in the customs union with the EU in accordance with the so-called support plan, without the possibility of withdrawing unilaterally. This would leave Britain unable to conclude its own trade agreements with third parties, but instead be committed to EU standards. Secondly, the border between British Northern Ireland and the independent Republic of Ireland would be kept open, undermining British sovereignty over all of Britain.
There is a small minority of Tories (around 10 MPS) that rejected the plan in hope of a “softer” Brexit, or one based on the Norwegian model. This means Britain would leave the European club but remain in the customs union and the common market. This bloc hopes that a second referendum would be held if its attempts to orchestrate a “soft” Brexit failed, in the hope that Britain would rather remain in the EU. The Irish Unionists (DUP), May’s allies in government, refused to back her plan out of fear that the support plan that stipulates that the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic remains open is a first step towards separating Northern Ireland from the United Kingdom. On the other hand, they fear that if Britain does not agree with the European Union, the hard border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic will be restored, which will have serious consequences for the economy and stability of Ireland.
The Labour party has 257 seats in the House of Commons, with every vote opposing the deal, despite a lack of consensus on the party’s Brexit position more generally. Some in the party are committed to the position of the leftist party head, Jeremy Corbyn, who remains dedicated to the will of the people, but the greater majority support the UK remaining in the EU. Some of these MPs run constituencies that voted to leave. However, these different groups agree that May’s plan will not work in Britain's favour. In fact, what unites them is political considerations related to the failure of the government. The Labour Party did not vote because it supports either leaving or remaining in the EU, but rejected the deal because it does not fulfil Labour’s conditions, the most important of which are:
- A strong cooperative relationship with the EU will continue.
- Britain will continue to benefit from the advantages it currently enjoys through its membership of the single market and the customs union.
- Migration management should continue to be managed justly and in the interest of the economy and society.
- Security and cross-border crime should be addressed.
- The Exit Agreement shall be equally beneficial to all regions and territories of Britain.
Labour does not believe that the agreement reached by May fulfils any of these conditions. Other parties in Parliament, including the Scottish Nationalists (35 votes), Liberal Democrats (11 votes), Plaid Cymru (4 votes) and Greens (1 vote) opposed the May Plan because these parties publicly opposed Brexit. Scotland as a country had voted to stay in the EU in the 2016 referendum.
The British Prime Minister failed to push her plan through Parliament and given the implications for this on her political career, she faces several scenarios. One of these includes looking for more concessions that the European side might offer after following the rejection of this plan. This is unlikely given the difficulty of securing the consent of all Member States for a new agreement, as well as the lack of a guarantee that the British Parliament will pass this agreement when it is finally reached. Considering the defeat of the Prime Minister and the rebellion of about one third of her party, parliamentary support for an updated deal is not a given. Another scenario is that the prime minister calls a second EU referendum or even early general elections. But this scenario needs to be approved by a majority in Parliament, which is also uncertain. In any case, May needs to request a postponement and extension of the negotiations’ period with the EU in order to give her more time to reach a better agreements. This requires the consent of all EU member states. May could also withdraw the request to leave the European Union, a move that the European Court of Justice ruled that the UK was entitled to make without the consent of other EU member states. But May believes that this option is out of the question because it means defying the will of the people and betraying British democracy. May has so far ruled out the possibility of a no-deal Brexit, which poses the most serious risk to the British economy.
The British parliament’s rejection of Theresa May’s exit plan put her in a precarious position with very few options at her disposal. It also presented Britain with a major crisis, with a loss of confidence in the future of the country and its economy, which is expected to decline this year to the seventh place globally, while doubts are growing about Britain's ability to meet the challenges of leaving the EU or even going back on the decision and remaining. Brexit posed important questions for Britain and an opportunity to redefine its national identity, especially since the division between labour and Tories is not the only division in British political life. Rather, Brexit has highlighted many regional, cultural, generational and social divisions, perhaps exacerbated by the difficult economic situation ahead. Through the Brexit conflict, the vulnerability of democracy to populism has also become evident. Populism contributed to the decision to hold a popular referendum, which the majority of voters now realise was a mistake and difficult to implement. Meanwhile, the populists in politics lack the responsibility necessary to implement a decision for which they are largely responsible.